In recent decades, life expectancy has increased dramatically around the world. On average, a person born in 1960, the first year the United Nations began collecting global data, had a life expectancy of 52.5 years. Today, the average life expectancy at birth is 73.2 years.
Advances in medicine and public health initiatives help humans live much longer than before. So much, in fact, that we may be running out of innovations to further extend life. Although medical advances have improved many aspects of our health care, the assumption that human life has increased dramatically over the centuries or millennia is a bit misleading.
Life expectancy is a matter of average
There is a basic distinction between life expectancy and lifespan. Life expectancy at birth is defined as how long, on average, a newborn can expect to live, if current death rates do not change. Whereas the concept of lifespan implies that there is an individual whose existence has a definite beginning and end.
The lifespan of humans, as opposed to life expectancy, which is a statistical construct, hasn’t changed much. Life expectancy at birth is just an estimate based on an average. For example, if a person has two children, and one dies before their first birthday but the other lives to age 80, their life expectancy is 40 years. That is mathematically correct, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture.
Lifespan in ancient times
However, this average is the reason why ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, are commonly said to live to be 30 or 35 years old. Did that mean that a 35-year old was considered in ancient times?
If that were true, the writers and politicians of antiquity do not seem to have gotten the message. At the beginning of the 7th century, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote that men should marry when they are not much older than 30 years.
The cursus honorum of ancient Rome – the sequential order of public offices – did not allow a man to hold his first position, that of a quaestor, until he was 30 years old. To be a consul, you had to be at least 43 years old.
In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder dedicated a whole chapter of his Natural History to the people who lived the longest. Among them, he lists the consul M. Valerius Corvinos (who lived to be 100 years old), Cicero’s wife, Terentia (103), a woman named Clodia (115), and the actress Lucceia who still performed at 100 years.
However, growing old was not as easy as it is now. Nature, in reality, has bestowed no greater blessing on man than the brevity of life, wrote Pliny. The senses are turned off, the limbs become clumsy, the sight, the hearing, the legs, the teeth and the organs of digestion, all die before us.
In the ancient world, at least, it seems that people could live as long as we do today. But how common was it?
Era of empires
In 1994, a study examined all men who had an entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary and who lived in Ancient Greece or Rome. Their age at death was compared with that of men in Chambers’ most recent Biographical Dictionary.
Of the 397 ancient men in all, 99 died violently by murder, suicide, or in battle. Of the 298 remaining, those born before 100 BC lived to an average age of 72 years.
Those born after 100 BC, lived to an average age of 66 years. The authors speculate that the prevalence of dangerous lead pipes may be behind this apparent shortening of life. For comparison, the average age of those who died between 1850 and 1949 is 71 years, just one year younger than their pre-100 BC cohort.
Of course, there are some obvious problems with this sample. One is that it only looked at men. Another is that all men were illustrious enough to be remembered. What we can extract is that privileged men lived, on average, to almost the same age throughout history. If they weren’t murdered, of course.
The results should not be dismissed, however. Some researchers maintain that this implies that there were none-famous people, who might have lived even longer.
Life expectancy and social inequality
But not everyone agrees. There was a huge difference between the lifestyles of poor people and the Roman elite. Living conditions, access to medical therapies, even hygiene, everything was much better among the elites.
In 2015, a study of about 1,800 ancient Roman skeletons belonging to working-class people showed that many showed the effects of hard work as well as diseases that we associate with old age. They had high incidences of broken and fractured bones, chronic arthritis and high incidences of bone cancer. Their average age of death was 30 years.
In ancient Rome, conditions were very different for the poor than for the elites. Women also did heavy work, such as working in the fields. To this must be added that, throughout history, childbirth, often in poor hygienic conditions, is one of the reasons why women were at particular risk during their childbearing years. Even pregnancy was a dangerous endeavor.
In addition, the delivery was worsened by other factors. Women often ate less than men. That malnutrition meant that girls did not fully develop their pelvic bones, increasing the risk. The life expectancy of Roman women increased with declining fertility. As a rule, the more fertile the population, the lower female life expectancy.
Inequalities in life expectancy today
A 2020 study analyzed life expectancy at birth in 201 countries between the years 1950–2015. The main goal of the study was to find out whether there is less inequality in life expectancy across countries. To perform the analysis the researchers used life expectancy estimates from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) World Population Prospects. Their findings indicate that life expectancy at birth seems to converge globally, but there are still inequities across countries when it comes to other age groups. In most countries, life expectancy at younger ages increases, but there are significant variations between countries for older adults and elderly.
Their results also indicate that life expectancy greatly depends on where you live. Countries located in Western Europe, Northern Europe and North America performing best in terms of life expectancy. Whereas the poor-performing are mainly in Western Africa, Southern Africa and Oceania.
Methods to estimate life expectancy in the ancient world
The main difficulty of knowing with certainty how long on average our predecessors lived, be it in Antiquity or Prehistory, is the lack of data.
To determine the life spans of ancient Romans, for example, anthropologists often rely on the results of the Roman censuses in Egypt. However, because these papyri were used to collect taxes, there is a lot of missing data since many men, women and children weren’t included. The inscriptions on tombstones are another obvious source. However, infants were rarely buried in graves because the poor could not afford them. Also, families who died simultaneously, during an epidemic for example, were also left out.
Available data from ancient Rome indicate it had high infant mortality. It is estimated that half of Roman subjects died by the age of 5. Of those still alive at age 10, half would die by the age of 50. Overall, the life span in ancient Rome was probably not much different from today. It may have been a little less because invasive end-of-life medicine that prolongs life a little wasn’t available, but it wasn’t dramatically different.
Life span among the poor
Data improves later in human history, once governments began to keep records of births, marriages, and deaths, at first, particularly of nobles.
Those records show that infant mortality remained high. However, if a person reached 21 and did not die by accident, violence or poison, he could have a life expectancy almost similar to that of people today.
Between 1200 and 1745, 21-year-old men could reach an average age of between 62 and 70, except in the 14th century, when the bubonic plague reduced life expectancy to 45 years.
Did money or power help? Sometimes. Queen Elizabeth I of England lived to be 70, at a time when villagers could have a longer life expectancy than nobles.
An analysis of some 115,000 European nobles found that kings lived about six years less than lower-ranking nobles, such as knights. According to demographic data found in county parish records of 17th century England, life expectancy was longer for villagers than for nobles.
Aristocratic families in England possessed the means to obtain all kinds of material benefits and personal services, but life expectancy at birth among the aristocracy lagged behind that of the general population until well into the 18th century. This probably happened because the nobles preferred to live most of the year in the cities, where they were exposed to more diseases.
But when the revolution in medicine and public health came, this helped the elites before the rest of the population. At the end of the 17th century, English nobles who reached the age of 25 lived longer than their non-noble counterparts, even though they continued to live in cities.
Differences in life expectancy are not significant
Although we generally think that in the time of Charles Dickens life was brutish, and short for almost everyone, according to demographic researchers, once the dangerous years of childhood passed, life expectancy of the Mid-Victorian era was not much different from it is today. A five-year-old girl would live to be 73 while a boy would reach the age of 75.
These numbers are not only comparable to ours, they can be even better. Men belonging to the working class today (a more accurate comparison) are expected to live for about 72 years, while women of the same socioeconomic status may reach 76.
This relative lack of progress is surprising, especially given the many environmental disadvantages of the Victorian era and the state of medical care at a time when modern medicines, diagnosis methods and surgical techniques were not available.
Researchers maintain that if we think that we are living longer now than before, this is because our records date back to around 1900. This is somewhat misleading since that was a time when nutrition declined and many men started smoking.
Our maximum life span may not have changed much, but that is not to delegitimize the extraordinary advances in recent decades that have helped many more people reach that maximum age, and live healthier lives in general.